Partners in Spirit: Relationships, Not Structures

Story author
Briana Halliwell
Friends at Woolman Hill

Photo by Nia Thomas

The Partners in Spirit Retreat in February 2019 represented my first wobbly step back into the forceful river of life flowing through New England Yearly Meeting after being away for nearly a decade. I stumbled and I fell, overcome by the power of the tide. Friends helped me to my feet and asked me to see. No longer am I blind.

This reflection began as a collaborative effort to express the power of the retreat for all who were present and those who were unexpectedly unable to attend. Another participant, Johnny Williams, and I gathered ideas together following the retreat, initially attempting to capture the ineffable experience in the conventional format of an epistle. When it came time to harvest the ideas into a shareable document, the writing took on the nature of a personal reflection more than a group epistle. I also realized as I wrote that the words held truths that went beyond my personal experience, which led to the following Spirit-led synthesis.

An intergenerational cross-section of Friends gathered at Woolman Hill over President’s Day weekend to engage in meaningful conversations about mentoring in the manner of Friends. This special retreat, funded through a grant by the Obadiah Brown Benevolent Fund, brought together young adults as well as Friends led towards mentorship in order to deepen spiritual practices as well as the relationships that support them. Nia Thomas (Northampton, MA, Friends Meeting), Hilary Burgin (Beacon Hill, MA, Friends Meeting), Kristina Keefe-Perry (Fresh Pond, MA, Friends Meeting), and Mary Link (Mt Toby, MA, Friends Meeting) served as facilitators. We joined together in heart, mind and spirit through evocative programs and gathered worship.

We were reminded throughout the weekend that we must seek new and transformative ways of being together that lift people up and tear down the limiting framework of existing structures within Quaker practice. As one Friend so gracefully stated, “Relationships trump structure. Structure reduces fear. Fear prevents relationships.” This seems to be a paradox for the birds, but an important one to consider for the continuation of the Quaker movement.

The continuing revelation at the core of Quaker faith and practice keeps the movement alive. The Quaker movement looks to how people are led as communities and as individuals to use their spiritual leadings and gifts to change the world for the better. It strives to create a community in which people are more important than structure—structure serves people, not the other way around.

Some questions that were raised at the retreat include: How do we build relationships without formal structure? How do we create structures that prioritize relationships? Within the Quaker movement, how do we dismantle the institutions of Quaker-ism that separate us from ourselves, each other and the Spirit? Following the retreat, we reflected on the fact that the Life of the Spirit is a movement and not an “ism,” which means that faithfulness is not so concerned with the institutions of Quaker tradition, but is more focused on the dynamic reality of the Living God.

Three years ago, at the height of societal upheaval and on the brink of political collapse, in the 2016 Minutes from Sessions our community metaphorically embodied an ancient, living tree in the remains of a castle in the sky. We represented life in the shell of an incongruous structure. We were reminded that “ was never the structure of the castle that had been holding up that place [the castle in the sky]. The power was the brilliant, radiant light shining in the heart of the tree.” The light of the divine shining in thee, and me, and we—we were reminded that the power resides not in form, but energy; in Truth, not doctrine.

The Quaker movement is centered on the acknowledgment of continued revelation and paying attention to the present and future testimonies of modern, living Quakers and friends—those who may not yet identify as Quaker, but who are our friends, nonetheless, ministering the truths of our faith without claiming the somewhat narrow identity of Quaker-ism. We must affirm that the Quaker movement is not about the mere reverence for our founder’s experiences—history is a useful tool for plowing the fields of our own spiritual turnings, but new seeds must be sown into the unearthed soil if Truth is to persist.

The Quaker movement looks to the future, riding the oppositional wave to its hilt, into eternity. Within the term “Quaker movement,” the mere fact that “movement” is attached to “Quaker” implies there’s a dynamic quality to it. The Quaker movement is fundamentally about looking forward. It draws on the past as a source of inspiration for that future movement, but it doesn’t dwell on the past or try to reify it.

Furthermore, the “ism” tacked onto Quaker tradition siphons the Quaker movement into a corner in an empty silo of its own. “Quakerism” is an ‘80s cover band that died with AC/DC—the electricity that started the movement doesn’t exist without the integrity of the Spirit that created it. AC/DC didn’t need a copycat cover band to continue its legacy, and nor does the Quaker movement need Quakerism to pretend to be something that it’s not in order for the movement to continue.

In the NEYM Sessions Minutes from 2017 our body was described as a container “formed by the Spirit to carry living water in the world.” We were asked to “place ourselves in the Potter’s hands, knowing that we are being transformed from one vessel, beautiful and flawed, into another that will serve better.” The form the new vessel will take is, as yet, unclear.

The theme of the Partners in Spirit retreat may have been nurturing mentoring relationships, but the life was found in simple connection. We discovered the edges of our container and flowed one into the other, unencumbered by the confines of any vessel whatsoever. We made ceaseless efforts to prioritize the person over the framework. As we gathered, we came to the realization that there is now, more than ever, a crucial need for individual care, accompaniment, and a recognition and lifting up of spiritual gifts within the community of the Yearly Meeting.

The weekend was an exploration around how to bridge the gap between generations that causes irreparable rifts within the Yearly Meeting foundations. We recognized that the NEYM community is in deep need of renewed connection. We are abreast in a moment of stepping into deeper relationship with identities that fall outside the context of our major body, and we struggle to stay buoyant in the riptides of change that challenge us now.

We ask, “what are the barriers to inclusivity, and how do we overcome them?” while drowning in the minutia of self-efficacy and the difficulty of challenging our own privileges, both as individuals and as a community. We see and name that the ecology of the Yearly Meeting is suffering from a lack of diversity. Without the possibility of new life and the re-generation of intergenerational dialogue with diversity at the core of growth and renewal, the community ecosystem will suffer a profound loss of new life and will remain stagnant in a dynamic world that demands continued evolution to survive.

Just as an ecologically diverse forest thrives with an abundance of saplings, so too the Yearly Meeting community needs youthful energy to survive. And, just as a patchwork quilt is bland and barren without an influx of colorful threads, our community will remain stagnant without the infusion of diversity in its midst. A deconstruction of destructive patterns and a dismantling of structures that no longer serve are imperative for the growth and continuation of the Quaker movement today.

Yet, the youth of the Yearly Meeting cannot do the work of continuing the evolution of the covenant community and the Quaker movement without the support and guidance of their elders. In the Minutes from Sessions 2014, we came round right, where we arrive again today, five years later, with the same message ringing true:

“We must embrace the whole of who we are across all ages. NEYM has worked to develop and nurture our younger members. We also need to encourage the gifts and roles of our elders. We need to allow younger members to take up fuller participation in our work and we need to encourage our older members to see how they can become elders and mentors.”

At the Partners in Spirit Retreat, we imagined a community where intergenerational relationships and mentor relationships flourished and prospered. We envisioned what the community would look like, and believed, if only for a moment, that it could be a reality. The visioning was not hard. Ideas sprouted from the silence like seeds bursting out of the soil at the first hint of spring.

Friends considered the importance of developing intergenerational relationships starting with the youngest generation in order to create a precedent of mentoring relationships that are set in place from the first moment a child (or an individual of any age) steps foot into a Quaker community. We discussed the possibility of including a section on the Annual Sessions registration form to sign up to be a mentor or mentee during Sessions to advertise the possibility of mentoring relationships throughout the week.

We also lifted up the idea of making the time of meeting for worship flexible, both by hour and by day, to accommodate bus schedules and make the sacred space of worship accessible to those with limited means. More ideas that were raised at the retreat and in the post-retreat evaluations to help build relationships without the limiting framework of formal structure can be found here.

During the retreat, Friends discovered the unity in our fears around mentoring relationships and practiced releasing those fears into the safe haven of the soil of our spirits, where we hope they will have a chance to decompose and enrich the soil in which we are grounded. The metaphor of composting the shared fears and hesitations preventing us from realizing a community of diverse multi-generational interconnection was a useful tool that we drew upon as we created our own symbolic compost, which is now in the nascent stages of rebirth and renewal.

We found the metaphor of a taproot, “a straight tapering root growing vertically downward and forming the center from which subsidiary rootlets spring,” to be a useful grounding to envision the roots from which our reformation will grow.

We believe it is essential to our survival to develop and strengthen a substantial taproot in the form of community elders from which the children of the next generation can draw strength and courage to face the perils of the damaged world they will inherit, without losing sight of their own power and connection to Source. For:

“The Truth is one and the same always, and though ages and generations pass away, and one generation goes and another comes, yet the word and power and spirit of the Living God endures forever, and is the same and never changes.”

Margaret Fell, 1660